2715 AD on the planet Neodyma
Night had fallen. The city lay spread out before me, like a fantasy kingdom from the Arabian Nights. A feast for the senses.
Flickering torches illuminated ancient carvings on the massive stone pillars of the Citadel, making them dance and sway. A soft breeze caressed my skin, still tingling from the unfamiliar physical contact I’d been subjected to earlier in the day. The air carried the scent of exotic night-blooming flowers adorning the grounds, unlike any found on Earth. I could hear the faint crackle of incense burning in the braziers that lined the walkway leading to the center courtyard outside the door.
It was hard to believe that such beauty could be the home of so much misery and pain.
They would be coming for me soon. Dragging me into the courtyard of the Citadel to be stripped naked in front of the crowd, tied to the wooden bench that stood ready on the platform, then publicly spanked with a wooden paddle as punishment for my crimes. And later, still bound, I’d be privately disciplined in ways I couldn’t even begin to imagine by whatever man was awarded the privilege.
It wasn’t the outcome I’d expected when I signed on for this mission.
Star Portals have existed since the beginning of time. Doorways between worlds in this galaxy—and others. They have been found on Earth at the convergence of ley lines, those invisible electromagnetic paths crisscrossing our globe. Earth’s ancestors discovered them thousands of years ago.
Flourishing ancient civilizations didn’t die out and disappear. Once again, history was wrong. The people of Atlantis, the Sumerians, the Mayans—when tragedy struck their homelands, they simply migrated through the Portals to places where fresh water flowed, crops grew abundantly, and the climate was nearly perfect.
Human beings descended from our common ancestors have been living on a trio of planets thousands of light years away. Islands of stability in the universe, with vast quantities of precious metals and rare minerals.
Iridia. Gadolinium. And the blue planet, Neodyma.
“Neodyma, Sir?” AJ sounded puzzled. “Isn’t that the planet where people refuse to accept modern technology? I thought it was populated by a handful of rough savages.”
“Compared to us, they are,” Admiral Stevens replied. “And I fear the behaviors you’ll witness there will shock you. But we need your unique talents on Neodyma, Commander Norris.”
AJ tried to imagine what sort of behaviors the stern-faced admiral would deem shocking. Gladiators fighting to the death for the amusement of the citizens, as in ancient Rome? Human sacrifice? Her face reflected none of her wild thoughts. True to her military training, she stood there, her back ramrod straight, waiting for him to continue.
Stevens folded his arms behind his back and gazed out the wall of glass in his office. Situated on the 321st floor, it offered a dizzying panorama of all of East Metropolis.
“It seems a band of outlaws has taken over an ancient fortress in the Outlands of Neodyma, deep in the Crystal Mountains. Their charismatic leader, General Tok, is recruiting young women to come to Petra, claiming they can escape their dull lives and be loved, even worshipped, as women once were. But according to sketchy reports we’ve gotten in, once she arrives, the unlucky female becomes a sex slave, forced to submit in every way to whichever man is rich enough to buy her or powerful enough to win her in battle.”
Sex slaves? No wonder the admiral called the behavior shocking. AJ had never met any humans who actually engaged in sex with each other. Physical forms of intimacy disappeared long ago on Earth, replaced by electro-holographic stimulation, performed either alone or in group settings. Modern technology guaranteed a satisfying climax every time, without any of the distracting emotional trauma early humans had to endure in their quest to feed their ceaseless sexual hungers.
Long ago, science learned to suppress the body’s production of estrogen and testosterone through regular, minimal doses of synthetic hormones. The primitive erotic cravings that led men and women to behave rashly disappeared, as did the threat of unwanted pregnancy.
AJ had her own holographic partner, an attractive, muscular male she designed. Her image of the perfect man, he came complete with an ultrasonic wand sized to bring her to orgasm swiftly and efficiently. But she’d learned about the ancient practice of sexual intercourse between humans. It sounded like a messy and uncomfortable way to handle procreation. She considered herself lucky to live in modern times.
One day, far in the future, she’d be assigned a life partner based on shared goals. Her marriage contract would include a timetable to achieve them. If they chose to procreate, she and her mate would design and conceive the child artificially, in a sterile lab, where the infant would spend its first months of life closely monitored by the latest equipment. After two years, they’d be presented with a healthy toddler free of genetic defects—a far better system than leaving a child’s fate to the old-fashioned rolling of DNA-laden dice known as intercourse.
With a start, AJ realized Stevens was still talking. She put aside the images her imagination had conjured up and forced herself to pay attention.
Stevens began pacing along the glass wall, staring down through artificial clouds at the bustling city below.
“Keeping order on these distant outposts is an on-going problem. Frankly, Commander, the Interstellar Federation isn’t concerned about some cult indulging in obsolete sexual practices in the mountains on a faraway planet. Rumor has it that this rogue band is mining vast quantities of rare minerals and selling them to planets outside our Federation. With them, terrorists hold the key to building superweapons capable of taking the entire universe hostage.”
With a sigh, he turned and met AJ’s eyes.
“We’ve already sent out one undercover team. But as you know, modern communication devices can’t survive the bombardment of electromagnetic forces unleashed in the Portal. We’re limited to receiving live reports from our scouts or antiquated devices like sheets of paper bearing written words. There’s been no word from the team for three months. The Minister fears they’ve been captured or killed. Frankly, I’m inclined to agree with him.”
He paused, sizing up the slender woman in front of him. Shoulders back, head held high, she stood strong and proud in her dress whites. She wore her chestnut hair longer than most. However, per regulations, it was drawn back into a severe knot at the back of her head. Wide amber eyes regarded him steadily, displaying no hint of emotion.
“Command Central has decided that rather than risk the lives of another full team, this time they’ll send in a single spy. A female, more likely to be kept alive, if the rumors of sex slavery are true. Because of the danger, we’re reluctant to order anyone to take on this mission. So, Commander Norris—we’d like you to volunteer.”
She didn’t disappoint him. “Certainly, sir. It is an honor to be of service to the Interstellar Federation.”
“We’ve prepared a cover story for you. Although you’re average in height here on Earth, women on Neodyma do not grow to six feet tall. There’s no chance of disguising yourself as a local wanting to join his cult. Instead, you’ll pose as a reporter eager to score the first intergalactic interview with General Tok. Appeal to his vanity. You’re going to make him a superstar, bring his amazing new concept in social structure to the entire galaxy. Assure him that women everywhere will want to know how they too can be worshipped as goddesses.”
His expression grew somber. “But your real mission is to get as much information as you can about what’s going on in General Tok’s mountain fortress—and then get back here alive to tell us.”
She’d been on Neodyma for three weeks now. The assignment started out well. Although she’d been warned about the effect the Star Portal would have on her body, she ignored the advice to take a few days to recover and immediately set out to find a way to get to Petra.
Shortly after she crossed through the Portal, AJ hooked up with a caravan traveling one of the trade routes from Alexandria on the coast across the mountains to Olympia. They welcomed her eagerly. Not only did she offer a large fee for her passage, she also provided a continual source of entertainment, telling stories of life on Earth around the campfire at night.
Before leaving Earth, she’d been fitted with a Tellex chip that rendered her fluent in any language after five or six hours of exposure to it. With it, her brain made the shift seamlessly from one language to the next. She could regale her diverse audience with tales in Sumerian, Aramaic or any one of a dozen other obscure dialects spoken here that had long ago died out back home.
AJ found the scenery fascinating. She knew modern inventions were forbidden, but she hadn’t realized just how different things would be on Neodyma. The villages and towns were frozen in time, perfect replicas of what daily life had been like in the civilizations from which they came. When they traveled through the Portals, the settlers brought camels and goats, sheep and cows, seeds for growing corn and rice and wheat. But they tilled their fields with teams of oxen and moved trade goods by camel across desert and mountain or by ships sailing across the vast Sea of Atlantis.
As a consequence, the environment was pristine. Earth had long ago surrendered the name of Blue Planet to Neodyma. No carbon emissions here meant no air pollution. With no sludge from coal processing, no oil spills, oceans and rivers flowed sparkling and clear. Endless forests teemed with wild game. The sky an incredible shade of blue, reflecting the huge deposits of azurite that rose up to create the range of mountains that split its land mass in half. The jagged crystal peaks thrusting into the sky looked like giant glaciers advancing into the fertile green fields.
AJ spent seventeen days traveling across the planet with the caravan, the longest time she’d ever spent outside of an artificial environment. She thought Neodyma was the most beautiful place she’d ever seen.
The puppy did her in.
Had it not bolted, the little girl would never have been in danger. And AJ was certain she’d have completed her initial reconnaissance mission without a hitch.
It was to be a quick trip. Two merchants from the caravan had been to the market in Petra a year ago. For a hefty bonus, they agreed to let her tag along when they headed for the city. Young and impetuous, they suffered from the raging, unregulated testosterone she’d learned about that made them foolhardy in their eagerness for adventure and excitement, as well as sexual thrills. She thought that might be why they were the only ones willing to risk taking a woman in disguise into the heart of the city.
Josiah, the grizzled old Bedouin trader who led the caravan, pulled her aside, trying to talk some sense into her.
“Do you understand how dangerous this is?”
She reached out to put a hand on his arm. While on their journey, she’d seen that, as most of the inhabitants of Neodyma, his people still engaged in physical contact, sometimes using it when they wanted to emphasize a point during a conversation. “I do, Josiah. And I thank you for your concern. But I am trained in the art of self-defense.”
Josiah shook his head. “Petra was founded over two thousand years ago by immigrants from Earth. Tok and his men took over the city. He bought off or drove out the previous inhabitants; no one is quite sure which. Then he moved in with his band of soldiers and a crew of miners recruited from some of the roughest men on Neodyma. He keeps them in line with the promise that their service will be rewarded not only with great wealth but also with unlimited access to beautiful young women eager to serve them in every way. They say all the women there are his slaves.”
“That’s why I must go, Josiah. If there are young women in Petra being held against their will, I need to bring this story to the attention of the Interstellar Federation.”
The old man tried again, his eyes dark with worry.
“None of the men in the city will speak freely with strangers. The only place in Petra we are allowed to go is the central market, to buy and sell our goods. Foreigners are not allowed to remain in the city overnight. And females from our caravan are forbidden to set foot anywhere in the city, not even in the market. Women who live in Petra rarely appear out in public. No one I know has ever spoken to one of them. I cannot vouch for your safety if you go.”
“I understand the risks, Josiah. But this is my job.”
The old Bedouin sighed and laid a hand on her head, murmuring what she thought was a blessing. Another arcane concept she’d learned about in preparation for this journey.
Josiah provided her with a striped wool djellabah like the one her traveling companions wore. Similar to a caftan, it covered the wearer’s body from head to toe. Everyone on Neodyma recognized the djellabah as the uniform of a Bedouin merchant. It provided protection from the heat of the sun during the day and the chill winds that might spring up at night. She tossed a flap on the front over her shoulder to cover her nose and mouth and pulled the hood up around her face, leaving only her golden eyes peeking out.
A guard stopped them at the entrance to the city. Mohzan, one of AJ’s companions, opened the bags strapped to the camel they were leading, showing their trade goods—black sea salt gathered on the shores of the island of Namuba and rare spices grown along Alexandria’s tropical coast. The guard nodded, motioning them to proceed.
A long, narrow passageway wound through the cliffs ahead. Before arriving on Neodyma, AJ learned that Tok chose this site because, like the city it was named for, Petra could only be accessed through this mile long canyon protected by towering six-hundred-foot high cliffs on either side. Easy for guards stationed above to pick off any intruders long before they reached the heart of the city.
Mesmerized, AJ couldn’t help reaching out to touch the smooth polished walls of azurite in the canyon. Undulating bands of sapphire, cobalt, and aquamarine towered over her in a dazzling display, the colors flowing into each other to create new shades she didn’t even have names for.
The canyon walls were so beautiful, she was anxious to see the city itself. She’d seen photographs of the magnificent ruins of Petra on Earth. According to her research, the newcomers built this city as a replica of the one they left behind. Except these stone dwellings were carved from mountains made up of layers of azurite, a mineral ranging in color from the lightest shade of crystal blue, nearly transparent, to a rich indigo.
They had been instructed to proceed single file through the passage. Mohzan went first, followed by AJ, then Abram leading the camel. AJ’s neck prickled and though she was careful not to look up, she knew they were being watched every step of the way.
After about half a mile, the passageway suddenly opened onto a wide central square, flanked by enormous buildings carved into the living rock. Small lanes here and there led to other buildings on side streets. Abram headed down one of the lanes, set up as an outdoor market.
AJ towered over the majority of the people in the market, including her companions. Tall enough to see over the heads of most of them.
That’s how it happened. They wandered up and down the crowded aisles, past tables covered with exotic fruit and pottery, metal tools and beautifully woven rugs. Customers jammed the market. AJ noted that very few of them were female. The women walked behind their men, swathed head to toe in shapeless dark garments, heads down, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. The men on the other hand wore all types of dress, from djellabahs to Greek togas to loincloths covered with cloaks made of animal skins she couldn’t identify. She felt like she’d stepped into one of the holographic museum displays of ancient times back on Earth.
One woman had two children with her, one on each side. The boy, about six or seven, wore leather sandals, loose white trousers and a multicolored sleeveless vest, reminding AJ of a young Aladdin. The lad chattered nonstop, touching all the sharp knives for sale, begging for a cluster of sweet dates from one stall or a clay whistle from another. His weary mother pulled him along, trying desperately to keep up with the male figure striding along ahead of them who sent angry glances her way every time he had to slow down to wait for them.
On her other side, a little girl who looked to be about four years old, wearing a miniature version of the woman’s shapeless garment, walked along silently, as though already realizing how different her place was in this society. She held a little puppy tightly in her arms, half swaddled in her voluminous robe.
The mother turned away for a moment, softly urging her son to keep up. The little girl took advantage of the moment, holding her puppy up to show it a cage filled with baby chicks displayed on a wooden table on the other side of the narrow lane. The puppy lunged forward and started barking wildly, struggling to get out of the child’s embrace. Tiny as he was, he still proved too strong for her. Wriggling away, he darted across the lane and under the table, where half a dozen other cages of chicks sat on the ground.
The little girl cried out and ran after him. She never paused, never saw the team of horses barreling down the lane, pulling a cart piled high with wooden barrels of wine. AJ glanced around, but no one else had the vantage point she did and the driver was too busy trying to control his horses to notice a little girl dashing in front of his wagon.
AJ shoved half a dozen shoppers out of her way and dove headfirst into the path of the galloping horses. Grabbing the girl, she rolled in the dirt with the child in her arms, both of them narrowly escaping the hooves that would have trampled the little body into the dust.
They laid there for a minute, both trembling. Then the child’s mother let out a bloodcurdling scream. She ran over and fell to her knees in front of them, reaching for her daughter as she babbled her thanks. AJ barely heard her. She’d banged her forehead hard on the wooden leg of a stall as she rolled out of the way clutching the child. Putting a hand to her head, she stared at it blankly—as if it belonged to someone else—when it came away covered with blood. Her vision blurred and she felt dizzy as the part of her mind still functioning registered the fact that she must have suffered a mild concussion.
She sat up slowly, head pounding so much she half-hoped it would fall off. The market went silent. Even the mother’s weeping stopped. She looked around. Everyone was staring at her. AJ put a hand to her head again and then she understood. It was hot and as was the custom here, she wore nothing underneath the djellabah. Her hood had fallen back and the woolen robe, torn at the neck, hung down off her shoulder on one side. Both her long dark hair and the unmistakable upper curve of her breast were fully exposed.
Quickly, she gathered together the edges of the djellabah, pulled the hood back over her head. But the damage was done. Angry shouts from the spectators replaced the cries from the shocked mother. Strong arms seized her. She was held prisoner by half a dozen men in the crowd, all yelling and cursing at her. Abram and Mohzan had disappeared into the crowd. She’d made them promise not to rescue her if she was discovered, knowing that in all likelihood they’d be killed or imprisoned. As a female, she hoped she’d be treated differently. Besides, AJ felt certain that with her training she could handle these relatively primitive beings.
Two soldiers appeared out of nowhere, dressed like Roman legionnaires, wearing short tunics and leather sandals laced halfway to their knees. One grabbed her wrists and hauled her to her feet, forcing her to let go of the torn robe. It slipped down again, baring her nearly to the waist on one side. She heard a loud gasp, followed by a lewd hiss from one of the spectators. The other soldier bound her wrists together in front of her with a long leather strap that apparently took the place of handcuffs here. AJ didn’t even try to resist. She’d be more likely to gain access to the information she sought if these people didn’t see her as a threat and instead treated her as just another inferior female.
She managed to curl her fingers around the edge of the robe again, pulling it up to cover herself. The soldiers took their places. One stepped in front of her, using the leather strap to drag her down the narrow lane, while the other walked behind, poking her sharply from time to time with the tip of his sword to hurry her along. AJ walked with her shoulders hunched, head down, to make herself seem smaller and weaker.
From the few words the soldiers exchanged, AJ realized they were taking her to a place called the Citadel, to see General Tok. She willed away the pain in her head and vowed to keep her wits about her. The accident had been a stroke of luck. She’d be able to meet the general in person and gather information right from the command center of his desert fortress.
As they marched her through the city, AJ was shocked to see fountains and pools everywhere, surrounded with lush plantings. Date palms, banana trees, a riot of colorful flowers blooming—it was all the more amazing after the hectares of nearly barren land the caravan had crossed in the last few days. The builders of Petra had apparently discovered a bountiful supply of water in the mountains, channeling it to run freely everywhere in the city. It reminded her of pictures she’d seen of Las Vegas, the emerald green metropolis of flowing fountains in the heart of the American desert. That city lay in dusty ruins now, the stuff of legends. The river the reckless inhabitants drained for a hundred years to feed their dancing fountains had long ago dried up and disappeared.
She looked around, trying to take in as many details as possible. Walls higher than her head surrounded most of the homes in the city, with gated entrances leading to small inner courtyards. Vines covered with purple and red blossoms cascaded over the walls into the street and she could see the tops of more trees inside the courtyards.
They passed quite a few men and boys in the streets. All of them stopped to stare at her and several made lewd remarks to the soldiers who accompanied her. The soldiers ignored them, intent on getting her to their destination. She never saw another female, but she heard soft voices and children laughing inside some of the walled compounds.
Carved into the side of the mountain, as were so many of the structures here, the Citadel was an imposing building. It faced an enormous square plaza. The stone columns all across the front of the building, easily sixty or seventy feet tall, dwarfed anyone seeking entry. A flight of wide stone steps put the entrance high above the plaza, making the structure look even more impressive.
The soldiers led her up the steps and through a set of carved wooden doors that looked small from below but were three times her height. Inside, the building was cool. Flickering flames from massive silver candleholders reflected off the blue crystal walls, creating the effect of being inside a giant ice cave.
They marched down a long hall, past side passages that led to a warren of other rooms. Stopping in front of another set of double doors, this one a mere ten feet high, one of the soldiers knocked briskly.
“Come.” The command was sharp, the voice deep.
The guard in front of her opened the door. Although windowless, the room was bathed in light from a skylight piercing the rock ceiling in the center of the room. Beneath it, with the sun’s rays illuminating him like a saint in a medieval portrait, sat a pudgy little man with a swarthy complexion and a beaked nose. Dressed in a deep crimson robe that stood out sharply against the blue walls, he sat at a wooden table covered with piles of books and ledgers. The fringe of black hair around his balding head made him look even more like a holy scribe.
The man stood up and walked toward her, staring intently. His eyes were so dark they were nearly black, peering out at her from under bushy brows. AJ stared back, sending out a telepathic wave of control. The man gave her a cold smile, and she felt the wave crash and break as it touched his mind. Somehow, General Tok had created an instinctive defense against the tactics she’d been trained in for years. For the first time, AJ felt a tiny shiver of fear.
He moved closer, motioning the two soldiers to stand back so he could walk all the way around her. She stood a head taller, but that didn’t seem to intimidate the general. She knew she must look odd to him. Her eyes were a soft bronze color, nearly golden, set in a slim face with high cheekbones. Her body slender, without the lush curves she’d seen on the women of Neodyma. Although he would scarcely be able to tell that with the loose-fitting man’s robe she wore.
“You have come here uninvited. We deal harshly with intruders in our home.”
She kept her voice deliberately low and soft. “I have heard this is a place where women are welcomed, even revered as goddesses. I come seeking a better life.”
The general stopped in front of her, locking his eyes onto hers. She shivered again as she felt the full force of his gaze. It was almost hypnotic. Had she not been schooled in the art of mental combat, she would have succumbed immediately. AJ understood now why reports described Tok as charismatic. It wasn’t his physical presence, but rather the aura of complete authority he radiated.
“That is not true. Only women who have gone through a rigorous process of testing and interviews in the cities where they dwell are welcome. If they pass, they are escorted here as converts and trained in our ways. We do not accept willful, rogue females who deceive us to sneak in. Only the most worthy are anointed as goddesses in Petra.”
He looked her over coolly. “You are not from our world.”
AJ realized being accepted as a convert into the community offered her the best chance of finding the information the Federation sought. The idea of claiming she was a reporter seeking a story about the wonderful opportunities for women in Petra would never work. This man was not eager for publicity, unlike other self-appointed rulers throughout history.
She lowered her gaze as she’d seen the women do in the marketplace and patterned her speech after his formal tone. “That is correct. My parents came here with me from Earth when I was a child. My father and mother were assigned to Alexandria to work in the Interstellar Consulate there. They succumbed to one of your planet’s illnesses, one we no longer have any immunity to on Earth. I also fell ill but I survived and was taken in by a local family. They raised me as their own. Sadly, they too are dead now.”
Acting purely on instinct, she dropped to one knee in front of him, holding out her bound hands in front of her. Anything she could do to project an air of humility, of powerlessness, would go a long way toward erasing the mistake she’d made of mentally challenging his authority in those first few moments. She didn’t know if he was capable of probing her thoughts, so she did her best to create an aura of fear and anxiety in her mind.
“I have nothing, no one to care about me, either here on Neodyma or back on Earth. I knew that being foreign-born I would never pass the screening process back in Alexandria, so I took the risk of coming here in the hope that you would make an exception once I had the opportunity to present myself before you. I ask that you forgive my feeble attempt at deception and I humbly request you consider taking me in as a convert. I am willing to learn your ways, to undergo any tests to prove my worthiness.”
He reached out a hand, surprisingly gentle, and touched the wound on her forehead.
“By what name are you called?”
“At birth, I was given the name of Amanda Jane Norris. I am known as AJ.”
“Once you set foot inside the city, your fate was sealed. I will allow you to be tested. If you pass and are accepted as a convert, you will be given a new name, one befitting the position assigned to you in our society. If not, you will remain nameless and be assigned to other duties here. Either way, you will never leave Petra alive.”
Tok nodded once, as though making up his mind. “Take her to the examination room,” he ordered. “See to her injury and then prepare her for the High Priest. I will join you there shortly.”
The two soldiers hauled her to her feet and led her down a series of long corridors deep into the heart of the mountain. They ushered her into another windowless chamber carved out of the blue crystal. An involuntary shiver rocked her. With no source of natural light, the sensation of being inside an ice cavern was overwhelming. These extremes of heat and cold were still foreign to her. On Earth, she spent her time in climate-controlled environments where the temperature never varied more than ten degrees.
The space was bare, except for a square wooden table sitting in the middle of the room. They dragged her over to the table and forced her onto her back, one of them at the head of the table, holding her shoulders down, and the other pressing her lower body against the rough surface. With the table barely long enough to support her from head to hips, her legs dangled over the edge.
The soldiers made no attempt to draw up the torn edges of the djellabah and her left breast was almost completely exposed. AJ shivered again when she saw one of the soldiers staring at her nipple, tightened into a small nub from the unaccustomed chill in the air. She looked around. Torches lit the room, mounted far too high on the walls for her to reach. She saw nothing she could use as a weapon, no means of escape except for a door at each end of the room. AJ used her power to project an order into the minds of the two soldiers.
It was as though she’d hit a blank wall. They seemed to have no advanced telepathic skills, no ability to receive or respond to the commands she projected. AJ was stunned. Was it possible that these descendants of a more primitive culture had never developed the ability to access their psychic powers? If so, all her years of training in the art of mental combat would be worthless on this world.
One of the men held her down on the table while the other disappeared through the opposite doorway. He came back carrying a clay bowl and pitcher. Pouring some water into the bowl, he dipped a soft white sponge into it and dabbed away the dried blood on her forehead. Then he ran the damp sponge over her face and neck. The warm water felt heavenly. It was scented with mint and lavender and some other herb she couldn’t identify that immediately soothed the lingering pain in her head. Despite her precarious situation, AJ sighed in relief.
She was horrified a moment later when the man dipped the sponge back in the water and then held it over her exposed breast. Water dripped onto her hard nipple and the man bent his head toward it. But before he could do anything else, General Tok appeared from the door at the other end of the room. Seeing that she was already in place, he walked toward her, calling out to someone behind him.
A huge man stepped through the doorway. AJ shivered in spite of herself. He stood roughly seven feet tall, towering over General Tok and the soldiers. He wore laced sandals and a white pleated tunic like the soldiers. But his was only half a garment, covering him from waist to just above the knees. His upper body was bare, displaying a massive chest rippling with muscle and thick forearms ringed with wide gold bands. His obsidian skin gleamed as though it had been massaged with oil, as did his shaven head.
The soldiers bowed as they greeted him, addressing him as Holy One. He strode to the table and uttered a single command in a language AJ had never heard before. The soldier at her feet nodded briskly and moved to the head of the table, where he took hold of one of her arms, leaving his partner to grasp the other. Her wrists were unbound, then tied up again, this time to hooks on the sides of the wide table, stretching her arms apart. The men took their places on either side of her head, each with a heavy hand on one of her shoulders.
The man they called Holy One stepped to the foot of the table. He stuck his huge hands under the djellabah. AJ cringed as she felt his smooth palms moving up her legs. He slid the garment higher and higher, uncovering her thighs, then her hips, until she was completely exposed from the waist down. Her pulse raced and she forced herself to breathe slowly and deeply, keeping her mind blank.
General Tok stood at the foot of the table, his eyes sharp under the bushy dark brows. The High Priest grabbed her dangling legs under the knees, pulling them up and bending them back toward her stomach until her thighs were apart and her heels rested on the edges of the table on either side. AJ flushed in shame. It became impossible to purge her mind of thoughts. Tied down on this table, she was flooded with a frightening sensation of helplessness. And now her pussy and her bottom hole were completely exposed for the first time, open to the lustful stares of all four men.
In her modern world, adults did not appear unclothed in front of each other. Illness was virtually unheard of and rarely needed medical procedures utilized scanning machines that sent focused lasers and electron beams into the tissues. No one had seen her naked body since she was a small child, except for her holographic lover.
The big man said something else. Her language chip hadn’t been exposed to this dialect long enough for her to understand him, but General Tok seemed eager to translate.
“This is Thelo, our High Priest. He will be the sole judge of your worthiness to join this community. I suggest you give him your complete obedience, since he alone decides what group you will be assigned to. The Holy One says you are to remain in this position while he conducts his examination. Do not move—or you will be punished by the guards.”
AJ shuddered. Her skin already tingled from the unfamiliar touch of the High Priest’s huge hands running up her bare legs. The fingers of the soldier on her left tightened convulsively around her shoulder as he stared at her half-naked body. The general remained at the foot of the table, just behind the High Priest and off to one side, his position obviously chosen to give him a clear view of what would happen next. She closed her eyes, unwilling to see their faces as they witnessed whatever humiliation was in store for her.
The High Priest leaned forward between her legs. Using both hands, he spread apart her vaginal opening. Her eyes snapped open. His fingertips were hot and rough against the silken folds that had never been touched by a man. AJ tried to clench her legs together, but he wedged his upper arms and broad shoulders between her thighs, forcing them apart.
He looked up at her. His eyes narrowed. Then, slowly, he slid one long thick finger inside her, watching her face the entire time.